*Before I begin, a few housekeeping issues – the latest version of WordPress has made a number of changes that are screwing things up a little for me, so bear that in mind if posts seem far apart or don’t look quite right. Also, in case that wasn’t enough, Eircom seems to have made some fantastic ‘upgrade’ to the internet service lately, that’s resulted in me being offline more than on, so that should also explain the sudden drop-off in post regularity. Again, sorry about that, although it’s really more to do with Eircom than me…*
I could probably count on one hand in the time since I was there, the amount of people who even know where Belize is, let alone what it is. A British colony for many years, this tiny country that lies just south of Mexico and North of Guatemala finally gained independence in 1981, not that you’d really know it judging by the place. It was the starring country in one of Ross Kemp’s gangland investigation shows lately, in which he found out about the ‘hard crime’ and ‘gangs’ of Belize, which I found to be pretty humorous, having actually been there. It’s amazing how when you’ve actually never been to a place, you can quite quickly jump to the conclusion of a place being a dump, or a kip, even though you’re going solely by the (biased) program or show you’re seeing. For me, Ross Kemp and his ‘investigation’ was interesting, but no more than a very biased look at Belize’s crime problems – and don’t get me wrong, it has major crime problems – that failed to take any note of why these things happen. To begin with, Britain pulled out in 1981 and has failed to make any sort of meaningful investment into the country, that might encourage it to be able to stand up properly on its own two feet. The result, as if often the case, has been that crime has taken off at an alarming rate and as Ross quite correctly identified, gangland killings, drugs, hijackings and shootings are rife. I’d imagine however that this has quite a lot less to do with them wanting to go out and commit crime and more to do with the lack of development, jobs and money, after being left broke and with nothing to do by the sudden departure of the British.
While I was there, the advice was simple. The previous week, a major airlines offices’ had been raided at gunpoint, a seemingly regular occurrence, for money. I visited a hotel while there (Radisson, possibly?) and just getting into the hotel was akin to trying to board a flight from the US, such was the level of security. If you get a puncture, the best advice regardless of cost or vehicle destruction, is to carry on driving if at all possible for as long as you can as highway robberies are still frequent, and violent. So, you can imagine what I felt at the time about visiting the place. And for anyone unaware of what it’s like to land in such a place (and I’ve landed in a few similar places in terms of violence and general lack of development), here’s a quick rundown. Following the bumpy 2.5 hour flight that took us from the relative safety of Dallas-Fort Worth to Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport, Belize right across the Gulf of Mexico, we circled and descended over grasslands, makeshift roads, turning out over the sea once and back across the grasslands, with the little huts becoming more visible and identifiable as we descended further and further. Although I’m told there’s now an expansion program underway at the airport, at the time of visiting we landed and immediately set about coming to an abrupt halt – seemingly, overshoots even at this main airport are common. Before you even get to the door, the searing wet heat reaches your seat and has you drenched and sweating long before you’ve even gotten off the plane. There’s no bridges straight into the terminal here.
The baggage claim is more like a small room about the size of two Irish classrooms, in which there are two baggage belts, which may or may not work; not, on the day of my visit. From here you walk up to what can best be described as a normal school desk, behind which sat the local immigration official. Getting into Belize is trivial at best I imagine – every tourist counts, when it comes to bringing money into the country. And while most head down further South to somewhere like Placencia, my home for the next week was to be the ex-capital of Belize, Belize City itself. Originally the capital, Belize City was overtaken by the city of Belmopan because of Belize City’s close proximity and low altitude relative to the sea, which makes it a prime target for flooding and widespread exposure to the occasional hurricanes that pass through. For tourists though, there’s plenty to do if you want – there’s Mayan ruins just further up the road from the airport at Altun-Ha. We drove up there on the last day before I was due to fly home; while we were taking in the scenery and the sights, two young boys came right over to us, and attempted to sell us a baby crocodile. While I reckoned it’d be the best thing ever for scaring off door-to-door salesman, I had to decline the offer on account of the potential problems at American immigration on my re-entry to normality. It’s a spectacular sight though, and the fact that there’s no barriers and you can just climb up on top of them if you want, makes the entry fee all the more worthwhile, even if tourists do seem to pay a ‘special price’.
The real beauty for me at least though, lay in its normality. Because they’ve only been able to afford to build when there’s money, and that’s not all too frequent, things have grown up a little piecemeal all over the place. In short, to anyone else, it looks like a complete dump – buildings just turn up anywhere and everywhere; you might have a concrete hut that’s acting as a bar here, and then a wooden shack restaurant over there, and so on. One afternoon, we spent the midday drinking fresh ‘Belikin’ beer from what can best be described as a concrete shack, that seemed to have just sprouted out of the side of the road, sort of out of line with the other surrounding buildings. When I asked to go to the toilet, after a few too many Belikins, I was directed to an area basically still inside the bar but with a concrete dividing wall separating the bar area from this little room if you like. To gain privacy for your call of nature, there was a shower curtain you could pull across if you so wished. I quickly learned that that wasn’t just a dodgy bar (although there’s plenty if you’re looking for them), that was what they were all like. Another night, I returned home to bed after a particularly drunken evening at the local tavern. I sent an e-mail or two back home to assure everybody of my well-being (even though I wasn’t entirely convinced myself), and turned off the light, making sure my window blinds were across in order to try and stop any local crocodiles or snakes, or whatever else from coming in. Something much more bizarre happened however. I woke up the next morning, with a beating head that reminded me all too well of the night before. And when I looked up, there it was. In clear, black marker, as if someone had somehow managed to levitate over my bed to do this bit of artwork, was a bit of writing, as clear as day that said something to the effect of ‘Israel’. At first, I couldn’t believe it, checked my bags and everything was still there, so just let it drop. Sometimes it’s best not to ask questions.
One afternoon I went out snorkelling and scuba diving around the outlying islands, which was one of the best days of the trip, but also one of the most eye-opening. As we set out, music blaring from what was essentially a party-ship, we stopped, one-by-one, at these huge cruise ships off the coast. One by one, American tourists joined the party. Later on, on the way back, I asked the crew what the story with that was. As it turns out, the large American cruise ships, despite boasting of stop-offs in Belize, dock miles out at sea for the duration of the layover, organising excursions only with tour operators with whom they have a deal. When they do bring their passengers onshore for a look around, it’s always with reps who make sure they stay in the areas they want them to stay. It struck me that in spite of paying all that money to get a stopover in Belize, the only Belize any of them get to see is the manufactured version that seems nice, is perfectly safe and isn’t much cheaper than home. During the cruise, we ended up stopping off at a ‘tropical island’, which I was warned, was more or less set up for the benefit of cruise passengers. Although I’m including the picture here to show you what it’s like, even that can’t possibly do it justice – essentially, the whole island was like a big tropical island-themed version of something from Disneyland. Faux bamboo huts and shacks were set up, with full bars, global TV coverage and restaurants unlike anything you’d see back on the mainland were open, serving up ‘burgers, hot dogs, chips’ and the usual US fare. I couldn’t believe it. While the snorkelling and scuba diving were incredible, I had no doubt that the Americans would have a far different opinion of Belize in their cabins overlooking the ocean outside, than I would staring straight up at the fresh writing above my head that I was still wondering the origins of; all the while contemplating the purchase of that crocodile.